Spinning Gears :: Is Apple’s Walled-Garden for iPhone Development a Case of History Repeating?

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This is the first in a new series here at Gears and Widgets called “Spinning Gears.” Spinning Gears will hopefully do two major things: encourage me to update more often and provide more original content to GnW. So sit back, relax, and get ready for some hopefully informed and interesting commentary on relevant technology news.

A couple of days ago I had the privilege of covering Apple’s announcement that they’re dropping the NDA on App Store software. The original NDA kept developers from publicly discussing details and features of their applications that they’re submitting to Apple for considering on the Apple App Store. Additionally, the NDA prevented developers from discussing why their apps were rejected if they were.

Developers raged about the NDA, and many threatened to stop developing for the App Store entirely. At the same time, Google opened up its App Market, designed to provide developers a stage to sell applications for telephones running Google’s Android operating system. The Google App Market puts them in direct competition with Apple, and the HTC G1 on T-Mobile in direct competition with the iPhone on AT&T.

I mused about this connection in the comments on the post linked above around the original NDA, but I think there’s an important and somewhat troubling post that’s worth expanding on.

Apple’s behavior with regard to the App Store, especially when contrasted with Google’s openness with regard to the App Market, is eerily remniscent of the early days of the Macintosh, and if that’s the case, then Google is setting itself up to be the Microsoft of the mobile world; producing a popular OS that runs on multiple platforms. This could be good or bad for Apple, depending on how they respond.

Read more behind the jump.

It’s clear that Apple is treating the iPhone as a mobile platform, the next generation in mobile computing and smartphone technology, and that’s not news – it’s actually great, since this shift in the smartphone market away from bring primarily a plaything of businesspeople who are addicted to their email to something that can be a plaything of everyone who’s addicted to their email, and take pictures, and surf the web, and listen to music, and so on is a welcome change.

Just like in the personal computing industry, Apple started this trend of usability, flexibility, and universal applicability (even Apple haters have to credit Apple with bringing the personal computer out of massive rooms and business offices where they were essentially terminals for mainframes and dropping them onto students’ desks and home offices for everyday people to use) and now other mobile device manufacturers are struggling to imitate (I see what you did there, LG) or keep up, or invent their own solution (thank you Google). Apple saw the need for a smarter smartphone but one that could cater to the everyday user as well as the business person, and they developed one at a time when people who wanted music on their phones were stuck shoving SD cards into their devices or downloading from a proprietary music store with a terrible music selection.

Now Google is in the game, and their actions are remarkably like Microsoft’s back in the day, and I mean that in a good way. They’re bringing a sense of open development to the people who are interested in designing applications for their mobile platform, and essentially allowing anyone and everyone who has an app to put it up for sale or download on the App Market – a sharp contrast to Apple’s walled-garden approach, where Apple has to review each application in stark detail, and they have the final say over whether or not the app is something they want to see on iPhones and iPod Touches around the world. Google on the other hand, doesn’t really care as long as it’s not malware.

The iPhone has been around for a while and is hugely popular, but the HTC G1 running Android is getting a fair bit of attention, and pre-orders for the device have already sold out. Is the G1 the first in a line of mobile devices that will stand against the iPhone in yet another Mac versus PC war? Is the iPhone doomed to be the “Mac,” and the G1 and other phones like it doomed to be the “PCs?” And to that end, is Google going to be the new Microsoft of the mobile world?

I’m sure Microsoft isn’t having any of that, they’re still pushing Windows Mobile down as many throats as they can, but even Microsoft has to admit that Windows Mobile, as much as its made strides, has nothing on Apple and Google’s respective mobile OSes for stability and usability. But Microsoft’s opinion isn’t what’s in question here.

Apple’s walled-garden approach is remarkably similar to the way Apple fiercely protected the Macintosh operating system and platform back in the days before OS X, when Windows users could honestly say “I’d love to use a Mac but there are no apps for it” and there was no legitimate counter to that. That’s not the case with Mac OS X, and even the hardware switch to the x86 platform and Intel processors has opened the door to more development, but Apple had to suffer down a long road to get to that point. I wonder if anyone strategic at Apple is thinking about that corporate history and working to ensure that they’re not repeating history here.

Google’s open attitude towards development for Android has earned them significant kudos from the free software (and that’s free as in beer, not free as in without money) community, and from developers who bristle against their applications being picked apart and judged by a holier-than-thou entity who has the final say on whether or not you get to distribute it. Their perspective is justified; especially as more examples of software that Apple has rejected for vague reasons crop up across the Web.

For example, one independent developer created an app that would download your favorite podcasts directly to your iPod Touch or iPhone and submitted it to Apple for inclusion on the App Store. Apple rejected it because it “duplicated functionality in iTunes,” but the problem with that assessment is that iTunes doesn’t currently allow you to download podcasts that you’ve subscribed to directly to your device when new episodes are released. You have to download them to your Mac or PC in iTunes and then sync your device to get the new content. I know for a fact that people on the go, let’s say on a subway train, would love the ability to download their new podcasts with a single button press on their iPhone and listen to them immediately instead of having to wait until they have a chance to sync up with their desktop or laptop to get them.

Apple dropped the NDA and openly stated that they understood that it was becoming a burden on the people they want to encourage to develop for the App Store, and that they didn’t want to present an unreasonable roadblock to the process. That change in heart had to have something to do with Google and it’s position toward its App Market, but also had to be a statement of openness with regard to its own App Store. Apple needs to open up a little bit, or else people will stop developing for them, especially when they have the opportunity to compare their development experience against Android.

Apple might be able to get away with it for longer if development for the iPhone is substantially easier than development for Android, but in the long run, if people think Apple is being too restrictive and arbitrarily rejecting applications for no discernible reason, we’ll start to see more examples of apps cropping up that are available for any phone running Android but not available for the iPhone, and that puts us right back into the Mac v. PC debate, and that’s not a good place for Apple to be.

The iPhone is an incredibly strong platform with a lot of potential even beyond what we’ve seen already. It’s immensely popular even though it’s currently bonded to AT&T, and Apple has some leverage because the iPod Touch features the same OS and functionality, but in the long run Apple is going to have to open the doors a little bit.

When Apple said that they would be restrictive of the apps they allowed, I was one of the people who defended them because I understood that they have a platform to protect; they don’t want people to load up their device with apps that will make their platform sluggish, crash-prone, or in any way as notoriously difficult to use or troubleshoot as Windows is when compared with Mac OS; Google certainly doesn’t want that either, but their more open stance is certainly a benefit to them.

Apple could also benefit from a more open attitude towards application development for the iPhone and iPod Touch at this point – they don’t need to open the floodgates to every app that comes their way, but they could certainly lower the walls a bit. They’ve got competition now, and if they want to continue being as massively successful as they have been with the iPhone and iPod Touch, they need to begin behaving as such.

One thought on “Spinning Gears :: Is Apple’s Walled-Garden for iPhone Development a Case of History Repeating?

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